Thursday, January 24, 2013

Register Now: Flora-Quest 2013

Spring is already just around the corner and it's never too early to begin planning on how you want to spend it!  If you regularly read this blog you've surely noticed how much time I spend in the hills and hollers of Ohio's southern-most counties of Adams and Scioto.  It's no coincidence!  These two counties combine to be the most botanically diverse in our state and harbor many rare and fascinating flora (and fauna) you won't see anywhere else in the state!  From the limestone outcrops and cedar barrens of the Edge of Appalachia Preserve system to the continuous rolling forests of nearby Shawnee State Forest, you never know what's in store for your eyes, ears, and cameras!

How could you go wrong spending a weekend during the peak of spring activity with some of Ohio's most knowledgeable and passionate naturalists, birders, botanists, lepidopterists, entomologists etc. guiding you through the endless flora and fauna of these areas?  You can't!  So check your calendars and circle the weekend of May 3-5 for Flora-Quest!  This annual event takes place in the lodge and conference center deep in Shawnee state forest where you will be immersed in the diversity and history of the area by those who know it best!  I highly encourage you to peruse the Flora-Quest website for more information on events, trips, accommodations, guides, speakers etc.  Yours truly is a guide again this year and will be teamed up with well-renowned nature photographer Ian Adams for an experience in nature through the view of a camera lens.

There are plenty of other trips to choose from with out-of-this-world guides!  I know many of them personally and can guarantee an unforgettable time.  There are no wrong choices and each quest offers a unique experience with plenty of highlights and surprises.  Be sure to register soon though, as the more popular quests fill up quick.  I have attended this event two years running now and could not be more excited for my third installment; especially since being asked back as a trip leader!  A two-part blog post on last year's Flora-Quest can be found by clicking this link here for part one and here for part two.

To cap off this advertisement for what will surely be the most fun weekend you'll have this spring, here are some photographs that I think best capture what wildflowers, critters, and sights potentially await you at Flora-Quest 2013.  I hope you will check this event out further and give attending some serious thought!  I promise a great time, rain or shine!  The wildflowers, warblers, and smiles will hardly be in short supply!

Fringe Tree (Chionanthus virginicus)

Each edition of Flora-Quest has a plant species that acts as that year's sponsor.   Event organizers Cheryl Harner and Paula Harper asked me to help come up with the plant species (preferably a woody one this time around) that would grace the promotional card of the event this year.  I decided on the rare and intriguing fringe tree (Chionanthus virginicus) as the best one for the job.  It's a chance to showcase a relatively unknown species of tree that I found absolutely stunning for the brief moments it's in full flower.  Fingers crossed it will be making its prime appearance during early May this year!

Indigo Bunting

If the plant lovers are the primary draw to Flora-Quest, then the birders are a close second.  With Shawnee and the Edge of Appalachia at your doorstep you will not be disappointed in the diversity of returning migrants showing off their breeding plumage.

Rose Azalea (Rhododendron prinophyllum)

As you slowly drive down the roads in Shawnee state forest with your groups you would be hard pressed not to notice the magnificent displays of the rose azaleas (Rhododendron prinophyllum) out your windows.  You will hardly be the only creature interested in their aroma and beauty; these shrubs are constantly abuzz with bees and other pollinating insects.

Large Yellow Lady's Slipper (Cypripedium pubescens)

The real attraction and excitement that surrounds Flora-Quest for many is the promise of orchids.  Just about everyone will get the chance to lay their eyes on some of the lady's slippers, such as the large yellows featured above.  Several other orchids await those who come along for the ride!

Wood Frog (Rana sylvatica)

It's not just all plants!  You will have many chances to see a whole slew of critters that call the forests and prairies home.  Frogs, toads, snakes, lizards, just never know what will hop, jump, or slither past your group!

Prairie Warbler

If you love wildflowers then you're sure to love the "wildflowers" of the sky.  The warblers are one of the biggest draws for Flora-Quest and the list is long on what you may see.  Cerulean, worm-eating, prairie (shown above), Kentucky, and hooded warblers are just a handful of the ones that may get checked off your list.

Wild Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis)

Those on trips into rich, mesic woods may luck into seeing one of the most beautiful of spring's wildflowers, the columbine (Aquilegia canadensis).  They look like they belong in some exotic garden of places far away but instead call Ohio home.

Wherry's Pink Catchfly (Silene caroliniana var. wherryi)

Another striking wildflower that some groups may luck into seeing is the charming wild pink or Wherry's catchfly (Silene caroliniana var. wherryi).  This is normally a staple for a group or two's Flora-Quest experience but with the warming temperatures and faster springs it had already flowered and set to seed by the time of early May last year.

Southern Two-lined Salamander (Eurycea cirrigera)

Groups that explore and wade the cool, trickling streams in the shaded depths of Shawnee are sure to find these little guys by the handfuls.  Southern two-lined salamanders are very common under logs and rocks in small, slow-moving streams throughout southern Ohio.  I love the ticklish feel as they move across your hand.

Group of tiger swallowtails puddling

Butterfly admirers will not be disappointed either as the diversity in this area does not fall short in the insect order of Lepidoptera.  Regardless of what quest you're on you are sure to bump into some of these guys in one form or another.

Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida)

Last but not least is the common and lovely flowering dogwood (Cornus florida) that is always putting on an amazing show come Flora-Quest.  It's just not spring in Ohio without their showy white bracts gracing the blue skies and greening trees.

Honestly the best thing about Flora-Quest is the friends, camaraderie, and memories made over the weekend.  I am looking forward to reuniting with old friends and meeting news faces!  If you attend and we have not met personally before please introduce yourself!  I hope to see you all there! :)

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Plant Quiz Solved! Bog Birch (Betula pumila)

Congrats to Jim, Pete, and Dennis for correcting identifying this plant as bog birch (Betula pumila).  This photograph was taken in mid-May at Cedar Bog nature preserve in Champaign Co., Ohio.  Bog birch is a northern disjunct here in Ohio and survives in a select few fens and bogs in the state.  Due to its rarity it is considered a threatened species here in Ohio.  In fact, the population at Cedar Bog is one of the most southern stations for this plant in North America.  The latest period of glaciation brought this species south into Ohio when the environment and climate was more supportive of the birch and its northern associate plants.

Bog birch is also known as swamp birch and the smallest member of the birches native to Ohio.  It rarely grows taller than 10-15' and commonly forms shrubby thickets on the margins of fens, bogs, and wooded swamps.  Apart from the leaves the maturing fruit bodies on the shrub in the photograph should have helped in narrowing this down to a member of the Betulaceae family.

Thanks to those who played along and I look forward to posting more plant quizzes in the near future!

I've been getting back into the blogging mindset and attitude recently and while I'm organizing and writing I thought I'd throw in an appetizer-like plant quiz post in the mean time.  Check out the photograph below and see what you think and comment with your guesses and/or answers.  Best of luck!

Do you recognize this plant?

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Celestial Dance of Jupiter and the Moon

Few things could get your blogger out in single digit air temperatures and even crueler wind chills in the middle of a January winter night.  However, sometimes nature puts on a celestial show worth taking the time and extra layer of clothes to check out!  Tonight the largest planet in our solar system, Jupiter will be exceptionally close to the moon and make for an interesting view you won't be seeing again any time soon.  Jupiter won't appear this close to the moon again until 2026 so I hope you got the chance to check it out!  Those living in South America will, weather permitting, have the unique opportunity to watch the occultation of Jupiter; meaning the large gaseous planet will pass behind the moon and re-emerge an hour or so later.

Waxing Gibbous moon at 80% full with Jupiter to the right

I decided to brave the chill and take my limited experience and equipment out into the night to see what kind of photograph I could capture.  I only had my 300mm telephoto lens to work with but in the end I think the results turned out halfway decent in the photograph above.  It's hard to fathom that little white dot on the right is hundreds of millions of miles away and substantially larger than our own precious home world.  Jupiter is over 1,300 times more voluminous than Earth and has a mass more than 300 times greater.  In fact, Jupiter's mass alone is 2.5 greater than all the other planets of our solar system combined.  I'd like to think a day will come when a human being will be able to look out their window and see this mighty planet in full view before them as their spacecraft zooms on by...

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Virgin Temperate Rainforests of the PNW

I'm the first to admit my blog is titled The Natural Treasures of Ohio and for the most part that's rightfully so.  But from time to time I think it's fun and healthy to step outside her lovely borders and explore other places and regions our infinitely beautiful country and continent selflessly shares with us.  One of the most memorable and unforgettable of those experiences occurred a few summers ago when I helped one of my best friends move from Ohio to the Seattle area.  We loaded up his car in late July 2009 and took two weeks to travel over 4,500 miles and visited numerous national parks and forests including the typical classics like the Black Hills, Yellowstone, Glacier, and Olympic.  To this day we still frequently reminisce about all the lasting memories and events of that epic road trip and tentatively plan our next.

Almost fittingly the most anticipated and eagerly awaited of our destinations, at least for myself, came last: the famed virgin temperate rainforests of the Pacific Northwest, most specifically those on the Olympic peninsula.  I had long salivated at the idea of bearing physical witness to the grandeur and impossible dimensions of its ancient forest leviathans.  Trees were my first botanical love and sank their teeth deepest on that initial bite from the botany bug.  Even to this day they still have a special place in my heart that I dare say no other vascular plants can touch.  You just can't get the same level of satisfaction from hugging an orchid or lily that you can from a tree; although I can say I've never tried hugging my smaller, herbaceous cronies.

During my down time this holiday season I've found myself delving into old photograph folders on my computer and couldn't seem to look away from pictures taken during my time spent in those unique forest ecosystems and the monstrous trees that lay within.  So I'm here to take you back with me into those primeval coniferous wonderlands and share their unrivaled beauty.  It's the second best thing to being there and I hope by the end of this post most of you will be inspired to write the Olympic peninsula down on your bucket list of places you absolutely, positively must visit!

Lake Crescent on the Olympic peninsula in Washington state

Our journey to gymnosperm paradise started from the harbor town of Port Angeles on the northern end of the Olympic peninsula where we continued on U.S. route 101 west towards the mighty Pacific.  Not far outside of town we came across the first of many scenic photo opportunities in the gorgeous views of Lake Crescent.  The lake is widely known for its crystal clear, vivid blue waters that can be attributed to the lack of nitrogen in the water, which in turn inhibits the growth of algae.  After some quick pictures it was back in the car for the drive into the Hoh rainforest, one of the finest remaining temperate rainforests left on the planet.

Your blogger and an enormous Sitka Spruce

As we drove into the depths of the Hoh River valley it was hard not to notice the increasing size of the trees the deeper our car went.  In a moment I'll never forget, my eyes met one of the largest Sitka spruces still in existence along the side of the road.  At over 200' tall and 11 feet in diameter it easily dwarfs your blogger as he stands next to it in disbelief.

Better view of the massive spruce tree

The gargantuan spruce specimen is known as the Preston Macy tree, named after the park's first super independent.  Sitka spruces are unique in that they only grow along the Pacific coast from northern California to Kodiak Island in Alaska and rarely occur any further than 25 miles inland.  These endemics of the North American temperate rainforest have incredible growth rates supported by the perfect climate conditions.  It's not uncommon for sitka spruces to attain heights of 200+ feet in just a century's time!

Hoh River flowing down from the Olympic mountains

Above is the Hoh River as it carves its way down from the precipices of the Olympics Mountains just as its glacier predecessors did thousands of years before.  The Hoh is predominately fed by the melting glacial waters from the mighty ice sheets atop Mt. Olympus and is permanently stained grey from the pulverized sediment load it carries from the mountains to the ocean.

Skyscraper trees of the Hoh rainforest

The Hoh is one of the most prized tracts of remaining old-growth temperate rainforest to be found on the Olmypic peninsula.  Impressive coniferous forests of western red cedar, sitka spruce, western hemlock, coastal douglas-fir, and Pacific silver fir skyrocket into the heavens above.  These survivors of the ax and saw stand testament to the former grandeur of the Pacific northwest's forest ecosystem.

Evergreen canopies of the temperate rainforests of the PNW

Trees well over 200' tall and six to eight feet in diameter were hardly in short supply in the fertile valley of the Hoh River.  Up to 165 inches of precipitation (almost all rain) falls annually on this section of the peninsula and is what allows these trees to attain such unfathomable proportions.  Nowhere else in the world can you find such an incredible ecosystem than the Pacific coastline from northern California to Alaska.

My friend standing in amazement at the sight of such mighty woody beings

My friend Kevin looks hobbit-sized compared to the giants that abound around him.  Despite being a climax forest, things are hardly static in this type of ecosystem.  Many great titans of the past lay dead and decaying on the forest floor while trees of varying sizes race for the light above in a fevered attempt to take their fallen brethren's place.  It's not hard to get a kink in your neck from the constant staring straight up into the canopy trying to comprehend just how big these gymnosperm wonders are.

Roosevelt Elk drinking from a cool spring-fed stream

It's not just the large flora of the Olympic peninsula that draws the crowds but the mammoth fauna too!  Above is a male Roosevelt elk drinking from one of the many spring-fed streams bubbling through the forest.  Also appropriately known as Olympic elk, these beasts are the largest of the four remaining subspecies of elk native to North America.  Believe it or not it was actually these animals more than the trees that called for the creation of Mount Olympus National Monument in 1909, the precursor to Olympic National Park.

Another shot of the Hoh River

The immense amount of rain and ever-accelerating melt of the glaciers causes the Hoh to flood annually, carving new paths to the Pacific and carrying its load of granulated rock downstream.

Moss hangs on nearly every available surface

An interesting fact about the temperate rainforests of the Pacific northwest is they can have up to four times the biomass of comparable regions in the tropics.  Due to the extreme rarity of fire, both living and decaying matter builds up in trees, shrubs, ferns, mosses, soil etc; making these the most massive ecosystems on Earth.

Your blogger and an impressive coastal Douglas-fir

Out of all the trees I had the pleasuring of laying eyes on in the Hoh rainforest, I don't think any had the same effect on me as this one.  This is a coastal Douglas-fir reminiscent of its forefathers at over eight feet in diameter and 300'+ tall!  Don't believe me on the height, check out the next picture.

300'+ tall coastal Douglas-fir

I wish this photograph could do even half the justice this perfect tree deserves.  Before the logger's saws sank their teeth into these then-virgin forests it wasn't uncommon to see Douglas-firs like this growing by the thousands in nearly pure stands.  In fact, did you know that the redwood didn't always have the distinction of being the tallest tree species on the planet?  The Douglas-fir is the former height champion with some specimens being measured post-cut at over 400 feet tall! Wow!  What I wouldn't do to time travel back to see those behemoths with my own eyes!

Moss-covered big-leaf Maples under the mighty conifers

While the conifers clearly rule the forests of the temperate rainforests there are some angiosperms that call it home as well.  My favorites were the bigleaf maples, gnarled with age and adorned with carpets of hanging moss.  It wasn't unusual to see some of the maples over six feet in diameter with equally impressive spreading canopies.

Looking up into the gnarled bigleaf maples

Another shot of the moss-covered cathedrals of bigleaf maples.  Looking up into the twisted and ancient trunks and limbs made me feel like I was walking through Fangorn Forest of Middle-earth lore.

Kevin sitting under the flared buttress of a Sitka spruce

The flared buttress and stilt-like roots of this sitka spruce have a pretty neat explanation.  It's a pretty common practice for seedlings to sprout on the decaying logs of fallen trees called 'nurse logs'.  As time passes and the seedling grows, the nurse logs gradually decompose and eventually become mulch on the ground, in turn leaving the seedling (now a fully mature tree) with a gap in its roots as the only evidence of its former nursery.

Massive driftwood logs on the shores of the Pacific

Ah, on to the Pacific!  There's no other ocean shoreline on Earth like those of the Pacific northwest.  Don't be fooled by the picture above, those are the largest pieces of driftwood on the planet!

Shoreline of the Pacific along the Olympic peninsula

This was one of my favorite photographs I took during my time in Washington state.  I think it represents what the Olympic peninsula is known for quite perfectly.  The evergreen coniferous forests overlook the majestic waters of the Pacific as the ghostly skeletons of former trees abound on the sandy shores.

Your blogger and arguably the largest Sitka spruce in the world!

I decided to save the best pictures for last to really drive home the point of just how BIG some of the trees are out here!  I promise there is no photoshop tomfoolery in this photograph.  That's really myself standing with the world champion sitka spruce; at least according to the American Foresters point system.  It measures 191 feet tall, nearly 19 feet in diameter, with a circumference of 58'.  That is nothing short of incredible if you ask me!  I don't think I've ever felt so small in my entire life, at least at that moment.  It's believed to be over 1,000 years old and is still alive and kicking.  I certainly hope to repay this tree a visit at least once more in my lifetime.

World champion western red cedar

Ready for another world champion?  If you thought that sitka spruce above was large, how about this record western red cedar!  While it only measures 174 feet tall (hard to believe I'm using the word 'only'), this goliath is just shy of 20 FEET in diameter and nearly completely hollow at its base!  Outside of California and its redwoods/sequoias, this is THE largest tree on the face of the Earth by volume!

World record western red cedar

Unfortunately, this tree is barely clinging to life with just a few top sprouts and side branches keeping it alive.  Then again at 2,000 years old you'd be lucky to look that good too!  This cedar will still be standing long after its demise as this species is well known for its resistance to rot and decay.  The western red cedar is the only other species of Thuja native to North America and is a close relative to Ohio's native white cedar (T. occidentalis).

Your blogger and the champion western red cedar

This champion lives in the world-famous Enchanted Valley, otherwise known as the Valley of the Giants, near Lake Quinault on the western side of the Olympic peninsula.  Sheltered from the most severe of the elements in the valley and a ways inland from the ocean, this tree is a testament to what Mother Nature can do when given the time and opportunity.  About a dozen or so 'super cedars' as I like to call them still exist in select areas of the Olympic peninsula and coastal forests of British Columbia and Vancouver Island in Canada.

Second-growth Sitka spruces

All the moss, ferns, and dampened air/soil gave the air a very raw and earthy smell.  Mixed with the spice of the surrounding conifers it really was one of the most refreshing aromas to ever grace my olfactories.

Pair of lovely Sitka spruces

The few days I spent in the magical wonderland of massive trees and beautiful coastline only whetted my appetite for more and I really hope to comeback to this wonderful place for even more exploration and neck-kinks sooner than later!

Sunset over the still waters of Lake Quinault 

I'll leave you with a final picture of the sun setting across the still waters of Lake Quinault from the shoreline of our campsite.  While I never got a good picture of it, just behind me was a massive red cedar tree that split into three trunks about ten feet up, leaving a nice-sized flat area in-between that was the perfect place to sit back, relax, and enjoy the sunsets as I basked in the experience of a lifetime...